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Turnpike Flameout

Q. What is Turnpike Flameout about?

A. It's a novel about the self-destruction of a celebrity, a rock star who had a big moment in the early 1980s, and now that moment's gone. Turnpike Bobby Chin, who got his start as a child sitcom actor, is accused of murder and brings together a "dream team" of lawyers and media manipulators to conjure up a "plausible alternative scenario" to get him off the hook. The tactics used are unethical, shameful — and effective. But that's showbiz.

Q. As someone who has handled celebrity damage control professionally, what exactly is the role of a crisis manager?

A. I'm basically a campaign manager whose job is to make the problem go away, and I have to figure out the best way to make that happen. If there's a legal issue involved, the focus becomes winning the legal case. If bad, but not illegal, behavior is at issue, I have to figure out if that behavior will be tolerated or rejected by people who matter. If the bad behavior is acceptable — as it often is with celebrities — there's not much to do. If the behavior is unacceptable, I try to determine the best road to repentance. An apology? A vanishing act? A comeback?

Q. What makes your narrative voice as a novelist unique?

A. I don't write as an objective journalist, but rather as someone who has spent a career on the inside of celebrity and corporate meltdowns — with all of the baggage and bias this implies. The media tend to see these well-oiled "dream teams," but from the cockpit of the crisis, there is only chaos and desperation. Sometimes audacious strategies are used to draw attention away from core allegations, but the tactical drama pales in comparison to how the star and his handlers come to grips with the reality that the jig is up. On one hand, you want to dislike the players, but on the other hand, there is something very sad about the death of a delusion. I try to convey this in all of its absurdity.

Q. Tell us something about the psychodrama at work in celebrity flameouts.

A. The celebrity no longer links his fame with a talent, like singing or acting. He comes to see himself as a star intrinsically, not as a performer or service provider. The further he moves away from the basic skills that made him famous, the more trouble he gets himself into. He is isolated. Whoever tells him the biggest lie, the one that confirms his belief that he's exempt from the laws of gravity, wins. The handlers aren't as concerned about the star's welfare as much as they are maintaining their proximity to the star, which requires deceit. Human behavior expands in the direction of what people can get away with. Most of us have barriers and boundaries, constraints to keep us in line. When a star has a dark impulse, not only are there no barriers to prevent him from acting on that impulse, people will be lined up for blocks to provide him with the forbidden object.

Q. You reject the notion that celebrities are self-destructive. Why?

A. Celebrities may be self-destructive in terms of the end result, but I've seen no evidence that they're trying to punish themselves for their success, which is the cliché. Their appetites simply expand and they are ruined by excess and a sense of invincibility and entitlement. John Belushi didn't want to kill himself, he just had a weakness for drugs. Most of us would not have that weakness indulged because there are things that stand in the way — family, limited finances, limited access to the bad indulgence. Because of who Belushi was, for every one person who said "be careful" there were fifty sycophants who'd get him what he wanted.

Q. There's a storyline in Turnpike Flameout about a beautiful au pair who goes missing. What's our fascination with what you call "lost girls?"

A. I'm interested in how the culture can be turned on its head by a lost girl. There is something so powerful about the archetype of the damsel in distress that it overpowers wars or earthquakes or anything else that's in the news. It's fashionable to criticize this, to ask where are our priorities? But we already have the answer: We are worried about the personal dramas of attractive people because we can play out the plot in our minds. We are hardwired to process little human escapades, but there isn't a damned thing we can do about a tsunami on the other side of the world, and we know it.

Q. Who is Turnpike Bobby Chin based upon?

A. He's based upon every celebrity who confuses random good fortune with permanent destiny. I base my characters on cultural phenomena, not real people.

Q. There's been a lot of talk lately about Tom Cruise's antics. Is this a flameout?

A. Not yet, but it sure is a midlife crisis. This is a guy who has been as big as the Beatles since he was in his teens. His fame is very much anchored in his youth. It's all he knows. Jumping up and down on couches about a hot young girl is an adolescent move. I'm the same age as he is so I understand the overwhelming drive men have to try to extend their lives by lurching backward. Unlike Turnpike Bobby Chin, however, I think that Cruise has an enduring talent and that he'll find his footing as Redford and Newman did before him.

Q. Is the kind of disinformation campaign by a media "guru" that you portray really possible?

A. Rarely, but the public believes it's commonplace, and that's what I'm tweaking. We have a strange history of worshipping gurus who claim to have answers, "ways". With all the hucksterism this country has known, we should have a more sophisticated sense of causality, but we don't. The latest snake oil salesman is the "spin doctor," who leads clients to believe he's got a way to control external elements. Everybody has an investment in the spin doctor: The spinner himself is hustling for clients; the client wants to believe they've brought on a miracle worker; the public demands that its theory of black magic be upheld; and the media like to traffic in shamans who purport to explain our world to us. If you hate President Bush, you'll be inclined to believe that Karl Rove is the omnipotent devil. If you hated Bill Clinton, you may think he got away with things because James Carville was the evil puppeteer. These are very sharp guys, but it's astonishing how much power we ascribe to them. In reality, a guru is just a strategist whose counsel collided with events that were already proceeding in his direction.